It took the Great Depression to give Tampa its first university and its impressive, historic home. The union of the university and our signature, minaret-topped Tampa Bay Hotel is an interesting tale of timing, resolve, and vision.
My last column detailed how Tampa came to purchase the Tampa Bay Hotel — situated on the west side of the Hillsborough River overlooking downtown — in 1905 after the death of its visionary owner railroad magnate Henry Plant. After the purchase, the city continued to operate the hotel through various lease arrangements with private operators. But the problem became clear: although Henry Plant poured money into the hotel, seeking to have it become known nationally as a lavish winter resort, subsequent operators were more concerned with the bottom line.
The fact was, the large building’s expensive furnishings and expansive grounds, were expensive to maintain. Without Plant’s deep pockets and attention to detail, the facility declined.
During the Roaring Twenties, the era known in Florida as the “Big Boom” (the post- World War I years from 1921 to 1927), Tampa’s economy flourished. With increased wealth and disposable income, many northerners flocked to Florida where they vacationed and purchased real estate. The Tampa Bay Hotel was profitable under the management of W. F. Adams. Both he and the city spent considerable sums to renovate the building and stem its decline.
But the real estate bust and national economic collapse of the late 1920s brought an end to the vibrancy and profitability of the once grand hotel. Adams filed for bankruptcy and the iconic building, a source of great civic pride, was empty. What to do with the Tampa Bay Hotel became the subject of much community debate.
Ironically, the financial turmoil of the Great Depression sowed the seeds of one of Tampa’s great institutions.
The idea of a Tampa-based university started at Hillsborough High School, in the late 1920s. School Principal Frederic Spaulding watched with dismay as his graduates had few options for higher education. Again, the state of the economy was the issue: the boom years had turned to bust and most families could not afford to send their children away from home to attend college. Given the financially challenging times, a junior college seemed more attainable. The initial boosters consisted of the Hillsborough High School Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which endorsed the concept and formed a planning committee. Later, the Chamber of Commerce assisted in the effort with its own planning committee.
The first meeting of the Executive Committee of the Tampa Junior College was held on July 29, 1931. With Spaulding as its president, they set tuition at $120 per year.
Classes were held at Hillsborough High School, and the faculty was initially volunteers — a combination of the high school teachers with a few college professors from other communities. Spaulding was principal of the high school during the day and president of the college at night.
On the opening night of registration, Spaulding nervously surveyed the empty lobby of the high school, worried that no one would register for the new college. An hour passed and the lobby was empty. Then a young lady, Ann Carey, presented herself at the registration table and the Tampa Junior College had its first student!
After two years as Tampa Junior College, it became apparent that the enrolled students needed a four-year school where they could complete their studies with a bachelor’s degree. Though finances were strained and their home was still a high school, the decision was made to expand to a four-year institution in 1933. The University of Tampa was launched with an enrollment of 300 students.
This new university now needed a new, permanent home.
And the City of Tampa needed to find a use for the vacant, shuttered Tampa Bay Hotel.
Tampa Mayor Robert E. Lee Chancey appointed a special committee to determine the best use for the hotel. Spaulding was one of the appointees. There were plenty of suggestions: a home of a permanent exhibit of Florida products, a medical school, even a sanitarium. The idea that finally met with the approval of city officials and the University Board of Trustees was a 10-year lease to The University of Tampa.
In August 1933, a battered pickup truck came to Hillsborough High School to pick up the few furnishings and records that would comprise the fledgling university. Depositing their meager possessions at the former hotel, the administration of the University of Tampa now had the formidable task of converting a huge, rundown hotel into a suitable venue for their students and faculty.
The Great Depression not only provided the impetus for the city to find a use for the hotel, and for civic leaders to start a university, but monies from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an economic stimulus program started by President Franklin Roosevelt, provided $220,000 in federal monies for a new roof and other repairs to the building and grounds.
A mayoral decree accompanied the transfer of the Hotel to the University, creating Tampa’s first museum — now the Henry B. Plant Museum. Many of Tampa’s leading citizens had become strong advocates for a museum, and as a result “that part of the first floor in the South wing lying South of the main stairway” was reserved by the City for use as an art gallery and museum. Furniture, tapestries, antiques, pictures and other important objects of art from the hotel were taken to the museum, and to this day they remain the core of the collection.
Today, the University of Tampa has an enrollment of 6,900 — 1,300 of whom are international students. Its current president, Ronald Vaughn, has steered the university through a period of unprecedented growth for more than 18 years. From a single building to 53, from 12 faculty to 550 — the University of Tampa has grown in ways that Spaulding would find astonishing.
The city still leases the site to the university. Thanks to the tireless work of The Chiselers, a volunteer group of Tampa women devoted to the restoration of The University of Tampa, millions of dollars have been raised and spent over the years for much-needed improvements.
This National Historic Landmark has endured; the hotel-turned-university remains a source of tremendous civic pride.